But critics say these “critical business” designations have given the space industry broad license to continue work on projects that are far from critical.
“It’s a free-for-all,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, a consultant and founder of space research firm Astralytical. “And it’s less to do with public health and more about economics.”
A balancing act
“We are following all [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines at all of our facilities,” the company said in a statement, “and have implemented additional procedures to ensure the ongoing safety of our employees.”
“We’re not talking about doctors and hospitals — we’re talking about aerospace,” Forczyk said. “I don’t think that the general public at all believes the industry is essential.”
It’s a “deeply political issue,” said Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes sustainable uses of outer space.
“Regulators know that, either way, they could get blamed,” Weeden said. “If they tell businesses to close, that means they are losing revenue and possibly having to furlough workers. And that’s weighed against the public health consequences.”
And that is a complex balance to strike amid this unprecedented crisis, Weeden added.
Rocket-sized gray areas
“Defense contractors were being pulled over and given citations for going to work,” Lt. Col. Mike Andrews, a spokesman for US Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord, said in an email.
Some of the federal government’s intentions are obvious, said Jeff Bialos, an aerospace attorney with the law firm Eversheds Sutherland and former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense. The military wants to protect production of fighter jets, tankers and weapons systems — as well as the government’s weather tracking, GPS and spy satellites.
But, when it comes to the space industry, those guidelines have rocket-sized gray areas, Bialos said.
It’s not clear to what extent a company or specific factory needs to be involved in defense-related work to be considered critical, he added.
“We need to do more to stabilize this important market that’s going to continue US leadership in space, both militarily and commercially,” Roper told reporters Wednesday, adding that, in his view, it is critical to support the entire space industry supply chain. “Space is particularly vulnerable [because] it’s not an area that you can snap your fingers and take a company that does one type of work [and] get them working in space systems.”
Still, NASA and the DOD appear to be taking a more cautious approach to proceeding with their in-house projects, even as their contractors have remained operational.
A space agency spokesperson said NASA does consider that work “essential,” though it is “is fully supportive of our contractors stopping work if it cannot be done safely.” The spokesperson added that, “much of the work that NASA and our contractors will perform to refine the proposed lander concepts will be done remotely.”
The military’s Space and Missile Systems Center also decided to delay the launch of new GPS satellites on a SpaceX rocket, citing concerns about workers gathering at the launch site. That announcement came just days before SpaceX moved forward with a launch of its own Starlink satellites.
SpaceX did not reply to multiple requests for comment on this story. But during a press conference about SpaceX’s Crew Dragon mission on Friday, chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said about half of the company’s engineers are working from home. Workers who do have to be at the factory are wearing protective gear, practicing social distancing guidelines and having their temperatures taken.
National security vs. public health
“Companies lacking cash reserves will furlough their workers, declare bankruptcy, or become targets for foreign capital or takeover,” the paper reads. “Our nation’s adversaries are aware of the readiness challenges COVID-19 presents to our national security space enterprise.”
The organization also argued that it’s impossible for the space industry to clearly define activities as purely commercial or defense-related because the two are “closely linked and often one and the same.”
But with more than one million Covid-19 cases reported in the United States and millions of Americans filing for unemployment as they shelter at home to combat the virus’ spread — can the space industry argue that testing tourism spacecraft or developing a Mars rocket is truly essential for national security?
When asked about those projects, Steve Jacques, the executive director of NSSA, said he recognized that is “a very sensitive topic.”
But, “we must ensure that the defense industrial base is employed — to make sure that we stay safe,” he said. “We hope the American people understand that the core of our democracy starts with national security.”
And with vague “essential business” definitions guiding the space industry, it may be best left up to the companies to decide what activities can be carried out safely and what may put workers at risk, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a lobbying group that represents companies including SpaceX.
“There is a lot of ambiguity” in the federal guidelines, he said. “I think if you can make a case for it, nobody is going to shut you down.”
But, he added, business concerns shouldn’t outweigh the need to protect human lives. “At this time,” he said, “I think we need to be focusing on our health care providers and keeping the nation well — so we can be well economically in the long run.”